December 28, 2018
Losing to the Boston Celtics on Christmas was a tough pill for the Sixers to swallow, and they didn't get much time to feel sorry for themselves afterward. That ended up being a good thing. Philadelphia pummeled the Utah Jazz on national television, picking up a 114-97 win over Donovan Mitchell's club to kick off a trip out West.
They have a lot of work to do before they return home in early January, but picking up a comfortable win in Utah was a great palate cleanser. Between Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and a resurgent night for JJ Redick, there were plenty of important developments they can carry with them the rest of the trip.
Here are a few things I saw during Thursday night's big win on the road, one of their best of the season.
Rudy Gobert is not a guy that gets put in the crosshairs like Hassan Whiteside or Andre Drummond. But don't mistake that for apathy for Joel Embiid, who believes the Defensive Player of the Year award Gobert won last year should have been his.
Thursday night in Utah, Embiid did his best to prove that. Not only did Embiid take it right at Gobert's chest on the offensive end, but he was a human forcefield on defense. The five blocks he came up with don't really do justice to the defensive performance Embiid had, with his length and timing altering layup attempts and lobs all throughout the night.
That's tough to do against Utah because of the threat Gobert poses as a roller. Joe Ingles is crafty in the pick-and-roll, and uses a lot of quick fakes to keep defenders off balance as they choose between contesting a layup or staying home on Gobert rolling. Embiid walked that line masterfully, and though Gobert was able to convert some of these plays inside it was due to Embiid that he didn't have a bigger night.
It's hard to overstate just how devastating Embiid can be on defense when he's firing on all cylinders. He came up with a chasedown block late in the second quarter on a play that should have been dead. Not wanting to allow his poor turnover to cost the Sixers points, it was Embiid to the rescue.
This was such a good chasedown block from Embiid last night. Great effort. pic.twitter.com/MUwy5Q23cU— Tom West (@TomWestNBA) December 28, 2018
There are few people on Earth who can do what he does. Treasure that.
Jimmy Butler was not at his best on Thursday, but a lot of that comes down to opportunity. He was away from the ball for a lot of the evening and made great use of it when he had it, scoring 19 points on 13 shots while playing some disruptive defense off the ball.
Off the ball was where the Sixers killed the Jazz on both ends of the floor. They executed some beautiful plays out of timeouts, freeing up Butler for a bunch of wide-open dunks throughout the game. It is a great sign to see the Sixers getting looks like these against a team with a strong defensive pedigree.
For all the imperfections of this team, it is encouraging to see them progress on the offensive end of the floor the longer they get to play together. Brown is finding ways to leverage Butler on and off the ball, and Simmons is learning when and where he can throw Butler the ball, even if it's a Hail Mary in transition. At least once or twice a game, Simmons treats Butler like the Sixers' equivalent of Alshon Jeffery, asking him to win a one-on-one battle for a lofted pass. Butler normally rewards his confidence.
It is no longer about just killing teams when Embiid sits and hanging on for dear life when he hits the bench for the Sixers. Lineups led by Butler and Simmons are winning more matchups despite the apocalyptic state of the bench, and they're doing it in different ways each night.
Give credit where it's due to that bench, however. The Sixers got a nice jolt from their backups in Utah, primarily in the form of T.J. McConnell and Jonah Bolden.
The former's success was pretty astounding because it appeared as though no one on the Jazz read the scouting report on Philadelphia's backup point guard. Utah allowed him to walk into his favorite spot around the right elbow, and he just punished them for conceding those midrange looks. I can understand wanting to let McConnell beat you rather than one of the Sixers' stars, but that's the last shot you want to give him if that's the strategy.
Bolden's night was a bit more up and down, and he had a horrendous foul on Kyle Korver as he nailed a three late in the shot clock as the first quarter came to a close. I was half expecting Brown to bench him for the rest of the night after that, because his tolerance for mental mistakes from young guys is pretty low.
But say this about young Bolden — the kid competes, and that mentality combined with his length and athleticism can make for some devastating defensive plays. He's not going to drop his head because he missed a shot or an assignment, and he's ready to bring the same energy no matter what happened on the previous play.
So far, I've been more impressed with the plays that aren't blocked shots for Bolden. He's lanky and looks like he should get moved off his spots, but he has good core strength and has shown the ability to hold his ground when necessary. Combine that with the shot-blocking instincts and you have the makings of a real player.
Yes, Simmons' jumper is going to be at the center of discussion for almost his entire career. But Thursday was a good example of how good he can be right now even though he doesn't have it.
Simmons filled up the box score with his fifth triple-double of the season (13 points, 14 rebounds, 12 assists), and he didn't even really get going until the second quarter of the game. What impressed me most was his work on the defensive end, where he is making more and more progress as time rolls on.
We all know Simmons can leap across a passing lane and go showtime on the fast break that follows. I think it's just as important (if not more important) that he's been attentive as an off-ball defender, which was one of the big marks against him coming into the league. Not only is he helping when necessary, but he's also using his length to blow up the play and force teams into resetting the possession.
That is not something that should be taken for granted.
It is not always going to be clean for this group until Simmons can get a jumper. And there will be some friction — Simmons bristled when Embiid didn't get him the ball on a post-up late in the first half, and those sort of plays are a natural product of their weird fit. But there are worse problems to have than a pair of young stars who are ultra competitive and believe they can win one-on-one matchups at their spots.
For the love of all things sacred, though, these guys need to stop coughing the ball up for no reason. Simmons had a few ghastly turnovers late in the fourth quarter that started to make things look interesting again.
He and the team ultimately kept the Jazz at arm's length, but with a little more attention to detail, this group would be much closer to challenging the league's elite teams than they are right now. The Butler trade has already made them more competitive with the likes of the Celtics, and now it's on their stars to clean up the small stuff that is within their control.
In any case, this was a strong win they should be able to build on.
Up next: a date with the Blazers in Portland on Sunday.
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